The Memphis Grizzlies, for years one of the most depressing franchises in professional sports, are now one series victory away from the NBA Finals. They play in a tiny market. They don't have a conventional superstar, though try and tell me Marc Gasol isn't one. They have made controversial moves. They have made moves that have gotten them absolutely killed by the media. They have made moves that should have been crippling to their franchise. But again, they stand four wins away from winning a brutal conference. How did this happen, and what does it mean?
They have simply been lucky
There is something to this. This theory is basically that they really aren't that good of a team, and have been blessed by teams that may have been superior had they been at full strength. The Los Angeles Clippers struggled with Blake Griffin hobbled; when he was healthier early in the series the Clippers jumped to a 2-0 series lead. Once past the Clippers they rolled through an Oklahoma City Thunder team missing one of the top 10 players in the world, and even without him each contest was quite close. Perhaps Russell Westbrook was the difference. I don't know how much stake to put in this; I think Memphis would have had a pretty good chance to beat the Thunder even with Westbrook with how good their defense is. Even if they would have been beaten handily, though, they are a small market team in the Western Conference who would have been right there with teams featuring Chris Paul and Kevin Durant. They have built something impressive down in Memphis, and its worth analyzing.
They have taken risks
This is an understatement. They have made some hard choices, some of which have worked out splendidly, and some which should have been disastrous. First, the impossible to defend: General Manager Chris Wallace drafted Hasheem Thabeet and traded Kevin Love for OJ Mayo. They received no value for Kevin Love, a key member of the United States Olympic team, and Thabeet washed out of Memphis pretty quickly.
They gave Tony Allen a three year contract in the Summer of 2010. I see this as the perfect way for a small market team to utilize free agency. Find a guy who has a specific NBA skill that you can acquire as either a fringe starter or key bench piece that won't hamper flexibility moving forward. Allen was already an all-world defender before he came to Memphis, and he has more than earned the $10 million Wallace gave him. The Cavaliers, moving forward, can follow this example. In a way, the CJ Miles contract is similar to the Allen signing, on a smaller scale. With Miles, the Cavaliers got bench scoring for cheap. This summer, the Cavs can look for guys who will buy into Mike Brown's system.
Despite having Greivis Vasquez and Kyle Lowry, Memphis instead chose to invest in their high draft pick Mike Conley. Conley came out after just one season at Ohio State, and he couldn't shoot and wasn't physically ready for life in the NBA. Memphis could have sold low on Conley and shipped him off, instead opting to build with Lowry. Instead, they extended Conley, known as a smart player with his head on straight at a price mocked around the NBA and let Lowry go. Lowry continues to make as much news for his talent and solid play as for the headaches he gives his head coaches as he bounces from team to team. At some point, the Cavs may have to make a tough choice in extending either Tristan Thompson or Dion Waiters to a deal that is a little richer than observers around the league might find prudent. Betting on our young players might be the right play; it was for Memphis with Conley.
Zach Randolph, written off by much of the basketball world while he appeared to waste his career away with the Clippers, was brought in. The cost to Memphis: Quentin Richardson. Since arriving in Memphis, Zach has rejuvenated his career, cutting out the three pointers, bullying power forwards in the paint, and even committing himself on the defensive end of the floor. The first thing I ever wrote for Fear the Sword was a fan post urging Chris Grant to follow the Joe Dumars model and take risks like acquiring Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups. This type of deal qualifies. Randolph was reviled in Portland, Los Angeles, and New York, and for good reason. In Memphis, they want to make him mayor. For the DeMarcus Cousins fans out there, Randolph is your example of a risk for a talented headcase paying off.
They have had continuity
There are two different ways that the Grizzlies have maintained continuity in a way that has really paid off. The first is simply in the form of their coach Lionel Hollins. Hollins isn't loved by all of the basketball world after his dismissive comments of advanced statistics while the Rudy Gay trade rumors were in full force. Despite this, you really can't argue with the results. The Grizzlies' record has improved in each of his seasons as coach since 2009. His commitment to defense and accountability and ability to play on real and perceived media slights of the small market team to motivate his players is unbelievable. Mike Conley has gone from weak point guard who couldn't guard to a tenacious and tough defender. He has managed Allen and Randolph's personalities to perfection. Marc Gasol has gone from afterthought in the Pau Gasol trade to the Defensive Player of the Year. The team was noticeably despondent earlier this season after the Jon Leuer and Rudy Gay trades; Lionel Hollins kept them together and playing hard.
The other continuity is simply having Conley, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol out on the floor together for multiple years. These guys are not offensive dynamos, but they know more about each other than just about any team in the league outside of San Antonio can boast. They know what they can and can't do. They fight for and love each other. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on face seem like complete opposites, but when you watch Randolph cheer for Gasol after a big play it is hard not to get fired up. The Cavaliers have installed their defensive minded coach. Hopefully our young players get lots of time on the court together. Chemistry doesn't happen overnight, it has to be earned.
This has led to a unique identity, embraced by the players and fans
Memphis now has a special relationship between its players and the fans and the city. It is pretty darn cool, and I dare say it can only happen in a small market. It takes a special kind of player who embraces the city of Memphis like Zach Randolph has, but the truth is, Randolph and Memphis need each other and they both know it. I don't know if this is something that can be duplicated. Cavaliers fans thought we had this with LeBron James, but deep down we knew it wasn't real. As silly as it was to get upset about James wearing a Yankees hat, it was another sign that LeBron may be of us, but he didn't belong to us. What Memphis has with Randolph is a player and a city finding each other, with really fun results.
Still, I wouldn't rule this out for the Cavs moving forward. Dion Waiters is pure Philly, but the young athletes of Cleveland really have fun supporting each other. Whether its Joe Haden or Phil Taylor sitting courtside, or Kyrie and Tristan going to Berea to hang out with the Browns, there is some momentum building. Winning, of course, will help. We don't know what the Cavaliers future is, but Memphis pretty recently was in a much more depressing situation. They may not win a title, but I wouldn't rule it out, and the Cavaliers can learn some lessons from the Memphis Grizzlies.